An opposition leader gunned down at a campaign rally. Anti-regime nominees jailed or disqualified from running. Confusing ballots apparently designed to trick voters into backing the wrong candidate.
Welcome to election time in Venezuela, a nation poised for the first time in 15 years to deal a real blow to the Marxist revolutionary experiment, with the vote today coming amid a wave of murders, spiralling inflation and even a shortage of toilet paper.
In the lead-up to today's congressional elections, the socialist country's legislative body is dealing with a shambling economy and a big departure from the last decade of election cycles — the absence of Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013.
"Chavez was able to hold the country together because of his extraordinary force of personality, charisma and communication skills," says Jennifer McCoy, director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University. "No one could take his place."
Overly reliant on oil
Before his death, he still commanded 60 to 70 per cent support. But the Chavez legacy also left his successor, Nicolas Maduro, with a fiscal vision that became overly reliant on petroleum.
Maduro has failed to capture the kind of popular support the anti-imperialism movement, dubbed Chavismo, enjoyed in 2000, when Chavez took nearly 60 per cent of the vote. Today's outlook for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (USPV) has dimmed amid a collapse in oil prices that has thrown Venezuela into economic turmoil.
"Within two and a half years, Maduro has taken an unsustainable [economic] model and just ridden it right off a cliff," says David Smilde, a senior fellow and Venezuela expert with the Washington Office on Latin America.
"People are having a very difficult time. And if the government loses this legislative election, which it looks like they will, it will provide the opposition with a real shot in the arm. This would be a situation that we haven't seen before, which is the government governing without full control."
At stake is majority control of the National Assembly. Giving up one of the five branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial, electoral, citizens) currently under Chavismo's authority would signal cracks in the Marxist foundation that Chavez once championed as "socialism or death".
The end of unchallenged political power
According to the country's pollsters, the opposition has a 20 to 30 per cent lead in the popular vote. All signs point to the opposition coalition — the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) — winning at least a simple majority.
Though the National Assembly only represents one branch of government, the loss would reveal a fissure for Chavismo. Or, as Smilde puts it, "the end of it as an unquestioned government project."
"Chavismo might be around for a long time because of the memory of Chavez," he says. "But as the leading unchallenged political power in the country, I think it will mean the end of that."
If the vote goes as expected with the opposition taking control of the legislature, McCoy believes it will swing the national mood in Venezuela, giving the populace a sense that the socialist project can be overturned.
"It will be the first time in a decade another party controls any branch of government," she said. "That will affect the entire power dynamic and give a lot of people the perception that change is possible."
A strong showing by the opposition would be tough to ignore. "That would motivate at least some people within the government to consider beginning to talk with the opposition," McCoy said.
But change won't come without the assurance that the ruling USPV will uphold some measure of electoral integrity. Recent events suggest the Maduro's faction is unwilling to do so.
Opposition candidate killed
This week, three men were arrested in connection with the shooting death of opposition candidate Luis Diaz, a murder that opposition leaders attributed to Maduro's government. The ruling party blamed the attack on gang violence, but the U.S. State Department quickly condemned the murder, adding that "campaigns of fear, violence, and intimidation have no place in democracy."
Meanwhile, ballots sheets have also been rife with confusion, with the opposition's logo and slogan apparently mimicked by another party. One district included a party calling itself MIN Unidad, which is running a candidate named Ismael Garcia, the same name of the opposition MUD Unidad candidate. MIN Unidad's Garcia, according to an Associated Press investigation, turned out to be a parking lot attendant with no political experience.
"It appears they just got his name on the ballot to try to draw votes away" from the opposition, Smilde says.
McCoy wouldn't put it past Maduro's government to employ underhanded tactics. The incumbent's advantage and access to state resources, media influence and coffers is also immense.
Meanwhile, life is hard in the streets.
Venezuelans endure hours-long lineups outside markets for staples like coffee, rice and cooking oil due to a scarcity of basic goods. The desperation is palpable in Caracas, says Roberto Izurieta, a professor on Latin American politics with George Washington University.
Government may undermine result
"When I was there, it was just beginning. Inflation is where it hurts people the most, and you cannot buy what you need to buy in some cases because those products are either not on the shelves, or you do not have the money," Izuerieta said.
The opposition winning the popular vote may not necessarily mean claiming a congressional supermajority, or about 60 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly, due to the electoral formula. Maduro's government may still be able to undermine a result, even if it respects the voter outcome, McCoy says.
The lame-duck congress could pass a new enabling law giving Maduro the right to legislate by decree for another 18 months, for example. "That's just one way the government can usurp the powers of the congress," McCoy says.
Could this spell the end of the socialist revolution? Maybe not, McCoy says, noting the system still heavily favours the ruling party.
"But something has to change in Venezuela," she says. "With the bottleneck they have in production, the crime levels, the corruption they have, it just cannot keep going this way."